05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Earthquake Weather and How to Prepare For It

What seems dangerous often is not--black snakes, for example, or clear-air turbulence. While things that just lie there, like this beach, are loaded with jeopardy. A yellow dust rising from the ground, the heat that ripens melons overnight--this is earthquake weather.

--Amy Hempel, from one of my all time favorite stories, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.

With the powerful earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Taiwan, and Turkey in the last two months, it feels like earthquake season. Luckily, it's not--the earth's plates are slowly moving along like they normally do: at the speed that human fingernails grow. Marc Acito, The Upside columnist for Walletpop, has this to say:

Good news -- we're not actually getting more earthquakes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in the last 100 years, the earth has averaged about 17 major quakes (7.0 - 7.9) and one huge one (8.0 or above) a year.

Yes, that's excellent news, Marc. We're still vulnerable--the East Coast even more so, as Dr. Michael Blanpied of the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program breaks down here in this forum on the Washington Post website:

Our plate boundary runs up the west coast, but there are significant earthquake hazards in at least 39 of our states, affecting at least 75 million Americans. The problem with quakes in the central or eastern US is two-fold: Seismic waves travel farther in the colder, older crust under that part of the country, so the damage can be more widespread. And there are more older buildings that may be vulnerable to being shaken. It is wise to examine earthquake hazards everywhere in the US, and to make prudent decisions about when it makes sense to replace or shore up vulnerable buildings.

Marc points out that your house or building, if not engineered to be earthquake-proof, could become a killer:

So the problem isn't the ground shaking under our feet -- it's the sheet of glass raining down on our heads. As University of Colorado seismologist Roger Bilham said in The New York Times, the growing urban population faces "an unrecognized weapon of mass destruction: houses."

So you're saying earthquake proofing is recession proof, or should be? (Investors, pay attention.)

And unfortunately, scientists can't predict "much" (not the one important thing) when it comes to earthquakes. From the Washington Post online forum, Dr. Blanpied explains:

We can do a good job of predicting where earthquakes will occur, how BIG they might be, and what effects they will likely have. In some cases we can do a good job of estimating the rate at which they occur, averaged over long times (centuries, say). However, thus far the earth has not shown us any means by which to tell that an earthquake is about to occur, or that a fault is ready to snap. Therefore, we are not able to predict the TIME of an impending earthquake in a useful way.

Knowing with 99.7 certainty that a 6.7 or higher quake will hit California in the next 30 years is more of an existential fun fact than a helpful, comforting heads-up. Thanks, science; the clock is ticking on breaking the earthquake prediction barrier.

To learn how to better prepare for the "big one," Marc Acito provides a checklist in his column, and some encouraging words. The USGS has preparation tips here for what to do before, during, and after an earthquake. And the site of the Earthquake Hazards Program will tell you everything you need to know about the potential for "earthquake weather"--where and when it might strike.

Now, back to my favorite--Amy Hempel:

"It's earthquake weather," I told her.

"The best thing to do about earthquakes," she said, "is not to live in California."

And remember, all those donations we made in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti count towards the 2009 tax season, if made between Jan. 22 and before March 1. Click here for more details. And don't forget to keep giving - the Red Cross depends on our continued support and so do the people of Haiti.